Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Xgau Sez

These are questions submitted by readers, and answered by Robert Christgau. New ones will appear in batches every third Tuesday.

To ask your own question, please use this form.

June 17, 2020

Book picks, David Murray and Prince grades, singing with the brain, the two best albums never reviewed, and you say you want a revolution . . .

[Q] I haven't had the chance to buy Book Reports yet, but I was curious to know if you recommend any biography on Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Frank Sinatra, George Clinton, or Public Enemy or a book on New Orleans music. -- Nicolas Auclair, Montreal

[A] As you and I know, this question was simply the tag end of a long paean praising the first volume of Gary Giddins's superb two-volumes-so-far Bing Crosby biography and recommending some Crosby recordings on Spotify that I'll try to get to sometime. And as some may recognize, you are a frequent correspondent here, so much so that I'm rather shocked that you haven't yet purchased Book Reports. I will however name as you request other worthy books. Can't help on Ella and oddly enough don't know of a good P-Funk book; my records indicate that I read the David Mills oral history but I don't remember a thing about it. The Chuck D as-told-to Fight the Power has some jam. My favorite Miles Davis book is John F. Szwed's sharp and often alarming So What, although Ian Carr and Quincy Troupe, both of whom I've only looked at, are more renowned. James Kaplan's two volumes add up to the standard Frank Sinatra tome, but you could also read War and Peace instead. I admit to enjoying Kitty Kelley's scandal-mongering His Way, which is not to swear there's a true word in it; the Pete Hamill quickie Why Sinatra Matters has its virtues. New Orleans is different. I've only read in rather than through Jeff Hannusch's I Hear You Knockin' and Jason Berry et al's Up From the Cradle of Jazz but admire both, and recommend two biographies: Rick Coleman's Fats Domino and John Wirt's Huey Smith -- much of it's devoted to his lifelong fight to get his royalties, which proves a compelling and touching story. I also love love love the Ned Sublette memoir The Year Before the Flood: A Story of New Orleans.

[Q] Do you listen to every new release by the great David Murray or do you just check out ones that get good buzz? You haven't reviewed him since grading three of his albums in the '90s when you also mentioned five others: The Tip, Shakill's II, MX, Saxmen, and Special Quartet. I'd like to know if you highly recommend any of those five albums or any other recent ones since then. -- Tom Brooks, Portland, Oregon

[A] I was familiar with David Murray early because Voicer Stanley Crouch, who I edited for most of the '80s, was his drummer when the two got to NYC circa 1975. Soon it became apparent that he was not only a major tenor player but that--like Blood Ulmer and for that matter Ornette Coleman--his musical proclivities weren't especially trad and sometimes skewed rock/pop. He had more extra-jazz content and concept; he was never content to be a virtuoso within the jazz tradition. So as I did with Ulmer and Coleman, I followed him pretty closely when he was with Columbia and stuck with him when he moved to the adventurous Montreal label Justin Time. But on Justin Time he was encouraged to record all the time, and as the ideas thinned out and the CDs didn't automatically arrive in the mail he just kind of slipped my mind. When I got your question I hadn't thought about him in years. Went to Spotify and found loads of stuff I would have had to dig around for and possibly buy on spec 10-15 years ago. Played two or three and really liked a ballad album called Tea for Two. On the other hand, when I pulled out the A plus Shakill's Warrior in what may have been the first time in 25 years, one thing became clear quick: not an A plus. Tom Hull has been following him much more closely. If you're curious check out what he has to say.

[Q] Mr. Xgau, why are you so hung up on Bob Dylan's voice? I am a young 28-year-old man who loves the fact Bobby D insists on continuing to attempt to sing despite his last vocal cord giving out sometime around Y2K. Do you know who else insists on singing despite being wholly unable to do so? Kanye West, M.I.A., Neil Young, et al. Inability to sing has never held any rocknroll genius back from singing. Yet anything in the last two decades you've written about Dylan has to be centered on the same rote "gee whillikers just can't stand that damn bobby bray." Who the f cares? -- Alan Wagner, Los Angeles

[A] This is ignant. My position forever has been that singing is as much a matter of brains as physical equipment, as Dylan proved by changing his voice constantly in the '60s and also by turning his songs to mush and self-regard for most of the '80s. I gave "Love and Theft" (2001) an A plus, said it "render[ed] his grizzled growl as juicy as Justin Timberlake's tenor--Tony Bennett's, even." I wrote a rave review of Modern Times (2006) that compared him to known great singer Bing Crosby. My B plus for the underrated Together Through Life (2009) said he was incapable of tenderness, not of hitting the notes. My review of the overrated Tempest (2012) said his voice was "crumbling audibly," which it was, and gave it a B plus anyway. But I can't stand the pop-standards albums he began rolling out when his songwriting muse left him in the lurch (2014, was it?). That singing was imbued with privilege, not intelligence. We'll see how this new album sounds--haven't heard it as I write, and am hoping for at least a little better. As for the rivals you named, Young is often a great singer, M.I.A. often an effective one, Kanye smart enough to have transformed the valence of Auto-Tune before he turned into a Trump fan, Jesus freak, etc.

[Q] Has your opinion of Prince's early albums changed since his tragic death on opioids? I'm surprised to see Purple Rain and 1999 with only A- grades and his great Hits + B-Sides box only a B+. Don't you think they should all be A+ like his other masterpiece Sign O the Times? And do you think Prince was just getting started or was his best music behind him already? -- Bob S, Ridgewood, New York

[A] It just so happens I recently relistened to most of these records and asked myself very similar questions. Having done so, I stand by both my reviews and my grades. These are very good albums that I ranked top 20 but not top 10 if you'll look at the Dean's Lists, as I did to check. High A minuses, as I like to put it. The lesser tracks good but in the end imperfect or simply lacking that compelling je ne sais quoi as I hear it. You hear it differently, as I'm sure makes good sense to your particular mind-body continuum--people are different, and that's as it had better be. As for the greatest hits thing, I'm simply reporting that he's so damn good, as you've just insisted and I've just affirmed, that the greatest hits format is wasted on him--unless the B sides are almost as transcendant. Which in my opinion they're not.

[Q] What's the best album you never reviewed? -- Oldfart, New York

[A] That's easy as these questions seldom are: either The Beatles' Second Album or The Rolling Stones, Now! Which, as best I can recall, are two of the first four rock albums I ever purchased not counting The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963) and Ray Charles's What'd I Say? (1962). In 1965 I believe, at Korvettes. The other two were Scepter's The Shirelles' Greatest Hits>, another all-time fave whose very similar Rhino iteration I gave an A plus in 1994, and Martha & the Vandellas' Dance Party, a typical Motown hits-and-filler no longer in my home shelves. I've probably played the three good ones more than any other albums I own just because they got such a head start. Half inspired covers (Solomon Burke, Amos Milburn, late Chuck Berry), half superb neglected originals ("Off the Hook," "What a Shame," "Surprise, Surprise"), Now! was easily the sharpest of the pre-Aftermath Stones LPs. As for Second Album, it's been pretty much written out of the canon because it was U.S.-only, prompting Dave Marsh to write a whole book about it. Beyond "She Loves You," one of my favorite records of all time (which I bought in its Swan version in 1963 not because I was any kind of collector but because that was the one this State Street shop in Chicago was selling), I love it for the covers, which predominate. Far as I'm concerned, "Money" and "Please Mr. Postman" are two of the best things they ever recorded, both surpassing the superb Motown originals.

[Q] In your last post, you linked a 1969 essay on revolution in which you said: "Anyone who is serious about changing things ought to be willing to prove it by taking risks. Right now, that means engaging in what I would call prerevolutionary politics . . . It means accepting the labor of organizing now and remembering that violence may be necessary later. It means being ready to give up your comforts if things turn out to be as bad as they seem." I'm a 24yo healthcare worker of color working in a pandemic as police kill unarmed black folks. I've given up my comfort, and things are as bad as they seem. Life-risking riots have made their way to the White House lawn. Elected officials literally endorse violent suppression. Resoundingly, the new word to have is revolution. Half a century ago, you said tactical violence may be necessary later. Decades of organizing have since failed to change oppressive structures. This generation has proven itself; is it time for violent revolution? -- Omar, Texas

[A] When this query arrived three weeks ago it seemed so urgent that I decided to answer it in a separate post, which I then spent 24 hours laboring over. Wrote about 1200 by no means completed words that I thought pretty much sucked. So I gave up. Here I'll keep my two main points as short as I can. First, 1969 was unimaginably different from 2020. At the end of the '60s what began as a black registration drive in 1964 and widespread antiwar protests in 1965 had spawned not just fervent, widespread popular opposition to LBJ's disastrous Vietnam policy but the black power movement, the women's movement, the gay rights movement, the environmental movement, and various violent revolutionary splinters, most prominently the Black Panthers and the Weather Underground. It is literally not possible for people who didn't live through it to imagine the exhilarating ferment of the time. But all that emotion was fed by a continually expanding post-WW2 economy that engendered even in African-Americans a collective confidence that would collapse as that economy stalled--and was then scooped up by the financializers who now hold almost all of us young and old in some kind of economic thrall. But especially young. Which is to say that the spiritual conditions today are very different, and while maybe the desperation they engender is just the thing to start a revolution, I doubt they're enough to sustain one. That's point one. Point two is that "tactical violence" was a crock even then, one I expect I stuck in there to shore up my limited credibility. There was some, of course--inept bombing ventures epitomized by the West 11th Street explosion that destroyed a townhouse and killed three Weatherpeople next door to Dustin Hoffman and across the street from a friend of mine who soon decided to become a swami. Since then, as we're now all too aware, local police forces have been fully militarized and, as no one seems to mention, a once obscure organization called the National Rifle Association has encouraged its vastly expanded membership, some of which holds rightwing views far more extreme and developed than those of, say, the John Birch Society in the '60s, to arm themselves with multiple killing machines they know how to use. Even in Texas our side is nowhere near as well armed, not to mention quick on the draw. Which is a major virtue, I'd say--but not one that improves our odds in an armed revolution.